Recently, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) published a report, The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 2007-2008 HERI Faculty Survey, that draws data from more than 22,000 full-time college and university faculty members at 372 four-year institutions from across the United States. It seems that only 34.2 percent of faculty believe they have established a healthy balance in their lives personally and professionally; and, not surprisingly, female respondents have greater difficulty than male faculty in striking a balance (27.3 percent vs. 38.7 percent). At the same time, faculty value as “very important” or “essential” developing a meaningful philosophy of life (72.5 percent), raising a family (69.2 percent), helping others who are in difficulty (65.2 percent) and integrating spirituality into their lives (47.5 percent). The conclusion, as one summary of the report puts it, is that “personal and professional balance is difficult.”
Growing up surfing, skateboarding, skiing and climbing has endowed me with an experiential archive of equilibrioception. For the most part, my body knows what to do. Maturing into a profession in which one’s work will never be done, however, I’ve become increasingly aware of the difficulty people have with “striking a balance” between personal and professional life. Faced with internal as well as external pressure, the mind seems less able to know what to do. And so at every turn a discourse of balance calls us back to what seems to be important in this life: from yin and yang to a balanced diet; from Buddhism and the art of life to the balance of success and happiness.
But what if we took to task the idea of balance? While utopian yearnings for balance are worthy in the light of spiritual transformation, such yearnings at the same time prove less able in the messy cycles of our day-to-day lives. Might there be a more felicitous way of describing (and living) a life less driven by apparently irreversible tensions between what we call the “personal” and the “professional”? Could we find in our lives a way of integration, or simply a life path that allows us to pursue our lives without feeling as if we are always “out of balance”? Much like the ecological enthusiast who discovers that the intuitive notion of balance and stability are no more than reductive human values imposed on the natural world, might we discover limits in the very idea of balance?